SM-3 interceptor missile launched from USS Lake Erie in the Pacific Ocean hit the spy satellite with toxic fuel on board. An official message from the Pentagon said that the interceptor was launched Wednesday at 10:26 p.m. EST and hit the target at the height of 247 kilometers. The potentially deadly satellite, the size of a school bus was about to enter Earth’s atmosphere before it was hit with the missile.
Almost all fragments of the destroyed satellite will burn or fall on Earth during the forthcoming 24 hours.
The U.S. administration decided to destroy the satellite to avoid a possible catastrophe. If the satellite with about half a ton of toxic fuel on board had fallen down on Earth from space, it would have led to many deaths, Pentagon officials said.
Russian military specialists said earlier that the U.S. spy satellite was probably carrying nuclear fuel on board. “Our specialists found out that it was not a common satellite. The absence of space batteries may testify to the fact that the U.S. satellite is equipped with a nuclear technology,” a spokesman for the Defense Committee of Russia’s State Duma, Igor Barinov said.
Barinov also supposed that the USA decided to down the potentially deadly satellite in order to conceal the technology that was used on it. “If satellite fragments fall down on the territory of another country, Russia for example, the USA may lose its defense secrets,” the specialist said.
The USS Lake Erie, armed with an SM-3 missile designed to knock down incoming missiles - not orbiting satellites - launched the attack at 10:26 p.m. EST Wednesday (0326 GMT Thursday), according to the Pentagon. It hit the satellite about three minutes later as the spacecraft traveled in polar orbit at more than 17,000 mph (27,000 kilometers per hour).
The Lake Erie and two other Navy warships, as well as the SM-3 missile and other components, were modified in a hurry-up project headed by the Navy in January. The missile alone cost nearly $10 million (EUR 7 million), and officials estimated that the total cost of the project was at least $30 million (EUR 20 million).
The launch of the Navy missile amounted to an unprecedented use of components of the Pentagon's missile defense system, designed to shoot down hostile ballistic missiles in flight - not kill satellites, the AP reports.
The operation was so extraordinary, with such intense international publicity and political ramifications, that Defense Secretary Robert Gates - not a military commander - made the decision to pull the trigger.
President George W. Bush gave his approval last week to attempt the satellite shootdown on grounds that it was worth trying to destroy the toxic fuel on board the satellite before it could possibly land in a populated area.
The three-stage Navy missile, designated the SM-3, has chalked up a high rate of success in a series of tests since 2002, in each case targeting a short- or medium-range ballistic missile, never a satellite. A hurry-up program to adapt the missile for this anti-satellite mission was completed in a matter of weeks; Navy officials said the changes would be reversed once this satellite was down.
The government issued notices to aviators and mariners to remain clear of a section of the Pacific Ocean beginning at 10:30 p.m. EST Wednesday (0330 GMT Thursday), indicating the first window of opportunity to launch the missile.
Having lost power shortly after it reached orbit in late 2006, the satellite was out of control and well below the altitude of a normal satellite. The Pentagon determined it should hit it with an SM-3 missile just before it re-entered Earth's atmosphere, in that way minimizing the amount of debris that would remain in space.
Left alone, the satellite would have been expected to hit Earth during the first week of March. About half of the 5,000-pound (2,300-kilogram) spacecraft would have been expected to survive its blazing descent through the atmosphere and would have scattered debris over several hundred miles (several hundred kilometers).